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"Be present!"
By: Andrea Furst (profile)
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It seems that this instruction has replaced "Focus!" or "Concentrate!" or "Relax!" However, just as people find it difficult to focus, concentrate, or relax, people also find it difficult to be present.

The importance of ‘being present’ or ‘in the moment’ has become more recognised in recent years as the trend of taking a holistic approach to mental health and well-being has grown.  In particular, there has been an increasing collision of Eastern and Western culture in terms of applied strategies that athletes can use to enhance competitive performance.

There is a lot of information in research and practice journals and magazines about embracing Eastern philosophies regarding mind control.

Which of these philosophies relate to elite sport performance and more specifically, golf performance?  Mindfulness is not a new concept to Eastern philosophies, but in this article, I will look at the application of mindfulness for golfers of all abilities.

The topic of Eastern practices hit the golf headlines with the advent of Tiger Woods' rapid escalation and sustained dominance at the top of the world rankings.  He has often quoted his mother's Buddhist practices, in particular meditation, as a factor in achieving his success.

The breath plays a pivotal role in meditation and as such there has been an emergence of breathing techniques and software programs that aim to achieve similar outcomes to those achieved with meditation, such as being present.  For example, several golf touring professionals such as Darren Clarke, Ian Woosnam, and Nick Dougherty have used HeartMath software, which assists players to stay in the present through a greater focus on the synchrony between their breathing and heart rhythms.  Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott also use this software to help players achieve peak performance through effective emotional management.

Elite athletes from a variety of sports are turning to alternative practices to enhance performance and there are several techniques that assist golfers to be present to perform consistently at their best.

During the most recent Olympic campaign, I encouraged one athlete to attend yoga classes to help with her 'busy' mind.  One of the challenges elite athletes find when engaging in the acceptance-oriented yoga is that they do care about the outcome and yes, it does matter if their technique is not quite right.  The acceptance of where things are at for a particular day is not a common trait amongst the successful elite athletic population, particularly in a training or practice environment.  So, when this particular athlete displayed her competitive nature by asking the yoga instructor about ways she could really improve her technique, she was met with a blank stare.

The purpose of recounting this story is, that like most tools, techniques and strategies, there is no ‘one size fits all’ and that it is very important to consider the match between a person’s goals and the particular discipline.  It is vital that athletes, coaches, instructors, and psychologists (or any practitioner working with elite athletes) take the time to work out how a discipline will best apply to that person.

More specifically, the often very chilled nature of yoga classes and the associated mindful approach can be a far cry from the grueling tough and aggressive nature of many athletes, when in competitive mode.  Therefore, it is very important to ensure there is a practical application of any activity to the relevant situation for your sport.  Too often we can get caught up in the new trends and pop psychology rather than actually what is truly relevant for you and your sport performance.

Let’s now take a look at what aspects of the practice of being present can be applied to the grueling world of elite sport.

Just like the instruction "Be present!" is a modern take on "Focus!", mindfulness is one of the latest popular approaches in applied psychological practice.

So, what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is about experiencing the world that is firmly in the ‘here and now.’  Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present.  This mode is referred to as the being mode.

The Centre for Clinical Interventions in Western Australia provides five Core Features of Mindfulness (www.cci.health.wa.gov.au).  For the purpose of this article, I have paraphrased the five features below:

1. Observing

The first major element of mindfulness involves observing your experience in a manner that is more direct and sensual (sensing mode), rather than being analytical (thinking mode).  A natural tendency of the mind is to try and think about something rather than directly experience it.  Mindfulness aims to shift one’s focus of attention away from thinking to simply observing thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations (e.g., touch, sight, sound, smell, taste).

2. Describing

This aspect of mindfulness relates to noticing the very fine details of what you are observing.  For example, if you are observing something like a golf ball, the aim is to describe what it looks like, its shape, colour, and texture.  You might place a descriptive name to it, like “white”, “dimpled”, or “round”.  The same process also can be applied to emotions (e.g., “heavy“, “tense“).

3. Participating Fully

An aim of mindfulness is to allow yourself to consider the whole of your experience, without excluding anything.  Try to notice all aspects of whatever task or activity you are doing, and do it with your full care and attention.

4. Being Non-Judgmental

It is important to adopt an accepting stance towards your experience.  A significant reason for prolonged emotional distress relates to attempts to avoid or control your experience.  When being more mindful, no attempt is made to evaluate experiences or to say that they are good, bad, right, or wrong, and no attempt is made to immediately control or avoid the experience.  Accepting all of one’s experience is one of the most challenging aspects of mindfulness, and takes time and practice to develop. 

5. Focusing on One Thing at a Time

When observing your own experience, a certain level of effort is required to focus your attention on only one thing at a time, from moment to moment.  It is natural for distracting thoughts to emerge while observing, and there is a tendency to follow and ’chase’ these thoughts with more thinking.  The art of ‘being present’ is to develop the skill of noticing when you have drifted away from the observing and sensing mode, into thinking mode.  When this happens it is not a mistake, but just acknowledge it has happened, and then gently return to observing your experience.

So, how do you become a mindful golfer? Mindfulness is a skill that can be learnt and takes time to develop.  It is not easy to master, and like any skill it requires a certain level of effort, time, patience, and ongoing practice.   

Here are some mindfulness techniques that golfers have found helpful for their golf, starting with some simple exercises you can do in your daily life right through to your time on the course.

In your daily life

  • Direct your attention to small tasks, such as brushing your teeth, opening your front door with your keys, and drinking a glass of water.  It may seem rudimentary and basic. However, aim to keep your mind on the task you are undertaking through to completion.  Pay attention to what you are doing and bring your mind back to the job each time you find yourself wandering.  Avoid the temptation to multi-task, particularly when doing such simple activities.
  • Develop and regularly use conscious breathing techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing.  Your breath provides a suitable focal point for you to direct your attention. 
  • Meditate!  Mediation is one of the key techniques used in mindfulness training.  Breathing plays a large role in meditative practices and as such learning to breath deeply with control, while keeping your mind on your breathing is one established approach to meditation. 
  • Practice being present when you are in conversations with other people.  References to ‘active listening’ have been commonplace in effective communication modules/workshops for decades.  Paying specific attention to exactly what is being said rather than thinking about what you will say next or even worse thinking about topics completely unrelated.
  • Become a master at one task, particularly where technology is involved.  The infiltration of smart phones is creating havoc with our ability to sustain attention on one task at a time.  Aim to segment your time so that you are either watching television or answering text messages or listening to music or playing games or replying to emails…as opposed to aiming to do these activities at the same time!

 On the range

  • Be disciplined in going through your pre-shot routine for a series of shots on the range.  Stay away from beating balls without thought.  This only creates a disengaged mind that will desert you on the course when it counts.
  • Simulate on course mental and physical routines while practicing on the range by visualising, planning, and executing each shot for a select 9 holes.  Play each shot tee to green going through your shot selection process and full pre-shot routine, imagining where the ball would land on the actual course after your shot.  This promotes optimal engagement in each shot.
  • Experiment with ‘trigger words’ that cue the desired feeling and movement you need to create a good swing consistently (e.g., full swing: "relax at the top", "stay back", "smooth take-away").  This brings a clear focus to your practice, awareness of the feeling that creates a good shot, and you can take your "trigger words" to the course as your "one swing thought" for the round.
  • Use multiple sources of feedback for judging how well you executed your swing, pitch, or putt.  This means you should not simply judge the execution of your game solely on where the ball lands.  It is easy to hit decent shots on the range or putting green and be sloppy with integrating good technique or your swing corrections.  Before you look up to see where the ball finishes, make your assessment based on the ‘feeling’ of the execution, your movement, and rhythm, even the ‘sound’ of the shot.  Try this drill for a series of shots in your practice. This type of self-directed feedback will help take your awareness and mindfulness in training to a whole new level through building all of your senses.
  • Test and improve your mindfulness practice by trying self-directed feedback drill detailed above by hitting a series of shots with your eyes closed.  When practicing your longer putts for instance, close your eyes and guess whether the ball finishes short, long, or at the hole before you look up for immediate visual feedback.

On the course

  • Develop excellent breath control in your shot process as a part of excellent mindfulness practice.  Work on using a good deep "ready" breath as a synonymous action with the full mental and physical commitment to your shot selection.  This practice can enhance the feeling of readiness, commitment, and focus on your shot.
  • Conduct a pre-shot routine check periodically to evaluate whether certain thoughts and actions are still effective.  Don't let your pre-shot routine become a mindless habit.  You make like to film your pre-shot routine to confirm what you "think" you are doing is "actually" what you are doing.
  • Go through the same shot selection process just as you would perform on each tee box at a tournament on an unfamiliar course when playing your home course.  Typically, playing your home course makes up the base of your on course practice.  If you are mindful in executing your shot selection process even on your home track, the process will feel more natural and clear come tournament time.
  • Accept the shot; the holy grail of golf.  Taking a truly mindful approach means that you are moving away from making judgments on each and every shot, and moving towards accepting that the shot is complete and that your thoughts are better served elsewhere.  Mindfulness is helpful to step back and simply let the judgments pass, rather than ‘hanging on’ to those thoughts and letting an emotional attachment develop.
  • Direct your mind to your surroundings when walking between shots.  Pay attention to the wind, sun, air, grass, trees/bushes, and/or wild life.  Take the time to connect with the external world during this time.  It’s a great way to give your mind a break from your round, and a superb way to be mindful of your surroundings.

Some of these strategies are ones that you would have already heard about and you may have even tried.  This goes to show that mindfulness is not a new practical application.  However, it is one that is extremely useful to experiment with in your life and game to keep the mind from buzzing around, using energy, often ineffectively.

Now it’s your turn to try to “Be present!”

 

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